The Trump administration’s foreign policy is in turmoil. National security adviser John Bolton has resigned or been fired — or both — and President Trump is taking heat from all sides, including from the Taliban’s spokesman, for a scheduled-then-canceled Camp David summit with the Taliban.
Amid this tumult, Trump ought to keep his eye on one fundamental goal he has long held: It’s time to end the war in Afghanistan, give up on nation-building dreams, and bring our troops home.
Our war in Afghanistan, which is old enough that it could enlist next month were it a young man, was a necessary and just war in 2001. It was in part a defensive war. Mostly, though, it was retaliation against the Taliban for providing safe harbor to the terrorists who attacked us 18 years ago today.
Yet like most foreign adventures, and like most Washington undertakings, this war of self-defense expanded. Soon it became a nation-building exercise, a front in the drug war, a struggle for the liberation of women, an opening to liberalize Islam, and a thousand other battles that will not end in the lifetime of anyone now reading this. We turned an easy, quick war of self-protection into a sprawling and unwinnable war.
It’s past time to declare victory in the war that made sense and give up on the wars that never did.
Some, including Bolton it seems, argue that we can’t afford to leave Afghanistan. Before we overthrew the Taliban, al Qaeda had a powerful friend in Afghanistan, they argue. So if we leave, al Qaeda or other evildoers will have a safe haven, they fear.
This worry isn’t totally wrongheaded, but it is overblown.
For starters, 9/11 wasn’t all planned in Afghanistan; much of it was planned in places like Germany. The terrorists were mostly Saudis. Future terrorist attacks on the United States are likely to be planned in the U.S. or in Paris, regardless of what Afghanistan looks like over the coming decades.
Second, the argument to keep occupying Afghanistan just because terrorists could crop up there is logically an argument to occupy dozens of countries where that risk is even greater: Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, and so on. There’s no limiting principle to this mindset.
Finally, the Trump administration has shown that it can defeat terrorists without occupying the countries where the terrorists are operating. Consider our successful war to cripple the Islamic State terrorist group. That didn’t require the reoccupation of Iraq or a massive troop presence in Syria. It required only diplomacy, long-range strike capability, and tireless surveillance.
The Trump administration should use our war against ISIS as a template for efforts to keep a lid on terrorist efforts in Afghanistan. If they start doing bad stuff, we will find them and kill them. That’s a far more American foreign policy than the endless occupation we’ve attempted in Afghanistan to date.
Afghanistan began as a war to retaliate for 9/11. We won that war long ago. Now it’s time to come home.